Walking Away

There’s a provocative short story by Ursula Le Guin called The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas. You can read it online here, and I suggest you do so before going on, because I’m about to spoil it completely.

The story has a simple and unoriginal conceit – that there is a city of general happiness and healthiness built, somehow, on the back of a single, abjectly miserable child:

The people at the door never say anything, but the child, who has not always lived in the tool room, and can remember sunlight and its mother’s voice, sometimes speaks. “I will be good, ” it says. “Please let me out. I will be good!” They never answer. The child used to scream for help at night, and cry a good deal, but now it only makes a kind of whining, “eh-haa, eh-haa,” and it speaks less and less often.

Members of the community, when they come of age, are taken to see the child. They react with compassion, disgust, pity, fear. Most return to the community, able to appreciate their utopian existence all the more fully. But not all return. LeGuin writes:

At times one of the adolescent girls or boys who go see the child does not go home to weep or rage, does not, in fact, go home at all… They leave Omelas, they walk ahead into the darkness, and they do not come back. The place they go towards is a place even less imaginable to most of us than the city of happiness. I cannot describe it at all. It is possible that it does not exist. But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas.

Le Guin gives credit for this moral dilemma to William James, whose The Moral Philosopher and the Moral life inspired the story. James does not dwell on the scenario he constructs, he does not even discuss whether or not it is morally acceptable, he only brings it up to say that a certain feeling of immorality – or horror – must haunt anyone offered such a bargain. From this he argues that moral sentiments are not always learned but often internal, instinctive, but this does not make them automatically right:

In point of fact, there are no absolute evils, and there are no non‑moral goods… For every real dilemma is in literal strictness a unique situation; and the exact combination of ideals realized and ideals disappointed which each decision creates is always a universe without a precedent, and for which no adequate previous rule exists.

From this, we can infer that James does not think the bargain of Omelas is an absolute evil. Le Guin doesn’t seem to think so either, for in her story most citizens do not reject it, and those who do, do so for alternative which may be better but which she can’t begin to describe or name. I am with James in thinking that any moral rule system we create must be conflicting and inconsistent. I am with Le Guin in not being able to describe or imagine the world in which even the evil of a single suffering person is eliminated.

But though I think neither James nor Le Guin would condemn the people of Omelas harshly, they seem like they would favor those who walk away.

What do you think? Is the decision to walk away foolish? Brave but morally unnecessary? The only morally justifiable option?

Would you walk away from Omelas?

8 Thoughts on “Walking Away

  1. Furius on March 27, 2011 at 12:33 am said:

    This is a very similar dilemma in a Doctor Who episode (one of Ten’s). I think it all very much depend on how happy is Omelas…

    In a broader scheme, everyone in the Western world is, in a sense, living in Omelas.

  2. Furius on March 27, 2011 at 12:38 am said:

    At the risk of opening another can of worms, I’m just going to add that the whole premise of Christianity is built upon the idea of a willing sacrifice and an idea that the sacrifice must be acknowledged…

    This moral dilemma, indeed, is very much a moral dilemma of sacrifice.

  3. shauna on March 27, 2011 at 12:54 am said:

    Which Ten episode are you thinking of? When you said Dr Who I immediately thought of “The Beast Below”, but that’s Eleven.

    In a broader scheme, everyone in the Western world is, in a sense, living in Omelas.

    Right – and I think most people I know would agree that the “bargain” we make as Westerners is morally unacceptable – but I think what Le Guin does is ask, is any amount of happiness at the expense of others acceptable? You’ll never have a scenario more in favor of accepting the bargain than the city of Omelas: a city full of vibrantly happy people at the expense of a single other. If you can accept that, then where does the line get drawn?

    At the risk of opening another can of worms, I’m just going to add that the whole premise of Christianity is built upon the idea of a willing sacrifice and an idea that the sacrifice must be acknowledged…

    I like worms! I was thinking that the most moral option for a citizen of Omelas is not to walk away from the city but to volunteer to take the child’s place. Of course, knowing that your pain serves a deeply meaningful end must lessen the misery – part of the totality of the child’s suffering in the story is that it doesn’t understand why its life is how it is, or anything of the society that depends on it.

    (And for that reason, I always thought that Christ’s suffering was less exceptional than those who suffered and died for no reason at all.)

  4. Coriana on March 27, 2011 at 1:18 am said:

    As you know, I’m a passionate Le Guin fan — but that’s one of my least favorite of her stories. Mostly because the metaphor is so overt the moralism becomes didactic — as Furius says above, “everyone in the Western world is, in a sense, living in Omelas.”

    The trouble with Omelas as a metaphor for the moral quandary posed by the oppression inherent in Western civilization is that there is no “away” — nowhere one can go to that is outside the system of oppressor and oppressed; no way to just walk out on the kyriarchy.

    I first read “Omelas” in “The Wind’s Twelve Quarters,” where it’s followed by “The Day Before the Revolution,” which is a story about someone who walked away — Laia Asieo Odo, the founding philosopher of the anarchist society that is the subject of the novel “The Dispossessed.” And of course I like Odo’s story better, even though it does not so plainly come to conclusive Meaning (in the introduction to “A Fisherman of the Inland Sea,” Le Guin says that she doesn’t like her stories to have Meanings, because they are not fortune cookies but stories — I think “Omelas” is one of her few stories that breaks that rule). Odo describes anarchism as the acceptance of responsibility for one’s choices. Several generations later, the Odonians have “walked away” to another planet (or, from the other point of view, those radical troublemakers have been shipped off Australian-prison-colony-style), and are still/yet/once again/always coming up with ways to codify/limit/restrict/determine who gets to make which choices. Which means (if I’m remembering rightly) that each generation, each Odonian, each person, each choice must choose anew at every moment to “choose and accept the responsibility of choice.”

    Which is all a round about way of saying that one cannot walk away from Omelas entirely, that the best any of us can do is try to make each of our tiny decisions — and large decisions, but also and probably especially the tiny ones — in the direction of “away” and in awareness of the implications of the choice. Which may not be fully possible, for any human being in the world as we live in it today — to know the full implications of each choice, I mean.

    So, after much late-night rambling, and getting out “Winds Twelve Quarters” to reread both stories, I will finally answer your question: I think the decision to walk away is the only morally justifiable option (for me myself; like a good Odonian, I do not pretend to judge others’ moral choices — or at least I pretend to not judge others’ choices, which may be as good an Odonian as one can be), and I think it is also foolish, also brave, and also impossible to fully carry through. But I do my best, when I consider the choices for which I am responsible, to weigh it in the balance.

  5. shauna on March 27, 2011 at 2:56 pm said:

    This story is definitely different from anything else of hers that I’ve read – shorter, more abstract, without any real characterization and only the smallest hint of plot. It’s debatable whether it’s even a “story” at all, and I wouldn’t compare it (favorably or unfavorably) as a piece of fiction to any of her other work. But I do think it’s layered and thought-provoking, so I like it for what it is.

    One way to interpret “walking away from Omelas” is not as a literal distancing – not Odonians heading to another planet, or you and I heading off to create a new society in Antarctica – but as a rejection of the utilitarian viewpoint that it is okay to achieve happiness of the many at the price of the suffering of the few. I think “walking away” can also mean staying and working for change. Which if I’m reading your last two paragraphs right, you agree with, but I think there’s room for that interpretation within the text of Le Guin’s story, and not just outside of it.

    Reading the James’ essay which inspired the story does lend some extra richness to it, although perhaps I’m biased by preformed opinions on William James specifically and moral philosophy/psychology in general. But I very much agree with James that a consistent moral framework does not exist, that there is no one set of rules we can define that will allow us to always make the right moral decision, and to the extent that the city of Omelas is built on a single moral rule (to quote Spock, “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one.”) it seems less morally acceptable than a society where each decision is considered in its own context and responsibility confronted and shouldered again and again.

    (Also – might I borrow The Wind’s Twelve Quarters sometime?)

  6. ch3cooh on April 1, 2011 at 1:48 am said:

    Odd – I had a very strong first impression that hasn’t been mentioned so far. My reading was that the people walking away from Omelas were knowingly walking to Hell – self-administering punishment for being unable/unwilling to help the tortured child. I think I took this reading in part from the phrase “they walk ahead into the darkness” – my first instinct is that they wouldn’t care where they go, but if they know where they’re going somehow, I don’t think they’d expect it to be a nicer place…

    In regards to William James, I’m also of the opinion that there’s no absolute ethical system inherent to the universe. But in light of that conclusion, I subsequently skip most of ethics in favor of psychology or even the psychology of ethics. I actually found the earlier parts of the story most interesting – Le Guin’s analysis that we, the readers, naturally reduce the happiness to the least substantive form we can justify until given the negatives… waiting for the author to finally reveal the ‘abused child in the basement.’

    I’m not sure if the author intended this but I really like the complement between the ideas that 1) readers and perhaps most people have come to more naturally value and respect suffering over contentment, or, if not value it more then expect it more, defining a situation by what the particular miseries are. and 2) that ethically, even one life of suffering is objectionable in a profound way to most people, intolerable to some.

  7. shauna on April 1, 2011 at 8:46 pm said:

    the people walking away from Omelas were knowingly walking to Hell – self-administering punishment for being unable/unwilling to help the tortured child

    That’s a really interesting interpretation, and not one I’d considered at all. Is that kind of “walking away” a moral thing to do? I’m not sure it is – but then I don’t think punishment itself is inherently moral, so my thought would be: “If you reject the morality of this system, why not do something about it?” A response that is purely internal helps nobody, in fact it may be overall less moral by taking away your own happiness.

    in light of that conclusion, I subsequently skip most of ethics in favor of psychology or even the psychology of ethics

    Then you’re like me! And William James, for that matter. (Not that James wasn’t big on philosophizing, but he was most prominently a psychologist – I’ve worked in a “psychology of ethics” laboratory in a building named after him!)

    People definitely seem to value suffering over happiness in certain ways, especially in the stories we consume: when was the last time you read a book or watched a t.v. show in which no one suffered at all? People seem to enjoy sadness vicariously, and to see a history of suffering as a mark of good character in a person. That said, I think most people would choose a life (or a day!) of happiness for themselves. I wonder what the source of that disconnect is.

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